Namibia: Genocide Reparations Negotiations and the Future of Shark Island

Court gavel

It was on this fateful day, 2 October 1904 when German imperial genocide general Lothar von Trotha declared genocide against the Ovaherero people, and extended this termination order to the Nama people on the 23 April 1905.

This piece focusses mainly on the historical context of Shark Island at Lüderitz having served as a notorious concentration camp during German colonial occupation and draws the attention of Namibia's foreign policy with respect to the ongoing bilateral negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany. The period from 1904 to 1908 represents a dark chapter in the Namibian history and the fallout echoes loudly in our society today.

It is vital that the future development of Shark Island forms part of the bilateral negotiations in an attempt to put things right in terms of Namibia's post-colonial development narratives aided by the German government's reparations and reconstruction packages.

Shark Island with its ugly colonial history saw mainly hundreds of captured the Nama and Ovaherero members being raped, humiliated, tortured under harsh weather conditions -and mass killings. Other atrocities committed by German fascist imperial soldiers and their henchmen during 1904-08 included amongst other things; robbing indigenous communities of their land, small livestock, cattle and hard-earned wealth etc.

In February this year, the Namibian government declared Shark Island as national heritage site. However, the lingering question is what would happen next given Shark Island's dehumanizing role under imperial colonial German occupation of Namibia. These tragic episodes can't be ignored in the ongoing bilateral negotiations between Namibia and Germany, particularly when it comes to Shark Island heritage site.

Presently, Shark Island is being managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) as a camping facility. The Island has remained largely the same - with little or no visible improvements over the last thirty odd years. When entering the Island, you are greeted by dotted rock outcrops, decorated plagues in the image of Adolf Lüderitz and German imperial soldiers who perished in the "stupid war" of slaughter. From the look of things, Shark Island is reminiscent of an abandoned cemetery. To put it bluntly, it looks like a forgotten area. Sadly, and paradoxically, the names of indigenous fallen heroes and heroines who fought with bravery and resisted colonialism are absent to this day.

Clearly, the absence of images and symbols depicting the anti-colonial resistance and liberation struggles waged by our ancestors is deeply worrying and constitute a misrepresentation of history.

This unacceptable state of affairs raises eyebrows, meaning that there is a case to be made urgently to put things in proper historical context. It is therefore logical that the Namibian negotiators be bold enough to persuade their German counterparts to restore the dignity of the affected communities. It is absolutely critical at this age and time that Namibia secures national development projects that are highly impactful on then long term in terms of socio-economic benefits to the affected communities, also sustainable in nature and those that may stimulate Namibian economy-and create new opportunities for subsequent generations to come.

It is for this compelling reason that this piece examines the impact of the combination of culture history and tourism on Shark Island. It is therefore proposed to construct Namibia's first ever Genocide Memorial Museum on Shark Island. Given its history, the island is better placed to house the proposed Namibia's Genocide Memorial Museum. Put differently, Shark Island could become a sacred site of remembrance.

Genocide Memorial Museum projects that are professionally managed have proven successful in places such as Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda in post-conflict era. These memorial museums have become popular global destinations on the "genocide tourism" map. That is why it is envisioned to establish a living genocide memorial museum - a museum that would memorialise the victims, teach the history and lessons of the genocide, and work to prevent future genocides anywhere else in the world. Memorials and museums from an intrinsic part of state and society in post-conflict societies, and a comparative approach can capture the dynamics of memory politics and help nation/state building project.

Moreover, this article seeks for the establishment of the museum that allows visitors to explore a variety of informative exhibits on genocide history with the Namibian characteristics. The proposed Shark Island Genocide Memorial Museum will be perfect to house all human skulls, other significant artifacts and antiques that were repatriated from Germany to Namibia in recent years as well as human remains that may be discovered in future.

The proposed museum project further aims to create awareness about Africa's vast, dynamic and diverse cultural artefacts and the influence Africa has had and continues to have on the various cultures of the world in the area of culture. This National Memorial Genocide Museum will be a focal center for preserving and promoting the African cultural heritage.

Cultural tourism has been one of the largest and fastest growing global tourism markets before the Covid-19 pandemic hit global economies. Without doubt, this type of museums will be popular destinations again in post -Corona virus era.

Culture and creative industries are increasingly being used to promote destinations and enhance their competitiveness and attractiveness. Namibia has so much to offer- this is the most opportune time to act decisively. In the context of ongoing bilateral negotiations; and as a part of reparations package, the Federal Republic of Germany could be persuaded to contribute significantly towards the realization of this noble national project. Not only will German and other European tourists be attracted to this museum but this will provide increased understanding to local successive generations about the genocidal acts.

It is further proposed that the museum feature amongst other things, a gallery, library, exhibition halls, café & gift shop, amphitheater designed to host large memorial events of historical significance, educational workshops, dramatic performances, cultural and historical events and film screenings etc.

In other words, the theatre could host a variety of events from remembrance ceremonies to festivals for humanity. It may also include children gallery with on-going activities for learning, discovering and having fun. The new generation of museums are designed to become exciting to visit for all age groups- and key catalyst for new service-based economies as in the case of the West today.

If one looks at the harbor town of Lüderitz, this is an area of strong heritage history and strong appeal only if its potential is fully realised. Given the current economic difficulties- there is need to get extra creative and aggressive in marketing new innovative ideas. To complete the tourist experience, a National Memorial Genocide Museum project ties in well with the ongoing state funded Lüderitz Waterfront development and other local sites of historical significance that are frequented by mainly foreign visitors.

Cultural tourism is important for various reasons: it has a positive economic and social impact- it establishes and reinforces identity & helps to build image. Travellers can learn and appreciate the cultures of Namibia. Africa's diversity is seen in its varied cultures, long-standing customs, striking scenery and wildlife. This captivating mix may attract a steady stream of visitors from around the world.

Given the urgency, the real work should start immediately to put things right at Shark Island. But how do we proceed in making sure this noble project comes into fruition? As a point of departure, there is urgent need for a well structured, and all- inclusive conversation involving relevant parties around this envisaged National Genocide Memorial Museum project. A project of this magnitude needs a champion who enjoys broad support from the state and non-state actors. In this regard, the Namibian state should assume an activist role in facilitating capital funding from German government as part of the reparations and reconstruction packages for the full realisation of this noble idea.

However, the National Genocide Memorial Museum should be managed by those in the know for obvious reason- a dedicated private enterprise will be best placed to run it strictly on business principles, and generate much needed revenues for its sustainability. The incomes generated from this enterprise should be invested back into the memorial to support the preservation of archives and to run a variety of education programmes.

We owe it to all our fallen Namibian heroes and heroines who fought with bravery, resisted colonialism at all costs and end up paying the ultimate price. Moreover, if this development plan is well executed and marketed properly, the museum could potentially become a major gateway to Namibia's developmental ambition. Towns and regions that thrive in this age and time are those who will be differentiated by their lively cultural sense of place, protected natural areas, and deep pride in local character.

The proposal of establishing the National Memorial Genocide Museum on Shark Island ties in well with the African Union much touted Agenda 2063. It recognizes the important role that culture plays in mobilising and unifying people around common ideals and promoting African culture to build the ideals of Pan-Africanism.

*Fluksman Samuehl is a scholar of International Relations and Strategic Studies with special interest in international political economy, diplomacy, foreign policy and political history. He served as a member of parliament (1999-2004). The opinions expressed herein are his own.

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